"The War That Was Almost Forgotten"

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In June, we were treated to a special surprise by Battle of the Bulge veteran, Buck Sloan. From his thick Texas accent down to his shiny black cowboy boots, Buck is the real deal. At 94, he can pluck the guitar and sing a tune that takes you back to the days of the old Westerns. 

Buck and his adorable wife serenaded our group with old classics such as Rag Mop (Ames Brothers), and a few that he had written himself.  


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Visits with the Vets

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In a large way, personal visits with the vets are the heart and soul of Operation Meatball. When the girls and I first started OM as a project 4 years ago, we wanted to use it as a way to encourage, thank, and remind WWII veterans that we are still a grateful nation, that their service to our country has not been forgotten, that they have not become obsolete to society, and that their age only makes them more valuable to us.

We did this through music, dressing in the style of their sisters and wives back in the 1940s, recording their stories, letters, or just taking them out to a meal. 

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However, brief encounters at events quickly grew into friendships, and as the veterans aged, it became more important to visit them in their homes or places of retirement where they could share stories from the comfort of their favorite chair, pull out old photos from pre-war days, or maybe just listen to their favorite Big Band cd. 

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Sometimes it's a quick hello and dropping off some sweets, and other times it's a 3-hour reviewing of war-time scrapbooks. Whatever the case, these "fireside chats" are the most precious of memories.

Recently, I called one of my Iwo vets who I hadn't seen in a while due to travel on both sides. "Come on over," he said. "I'm just here."

I popped over with the complete intention of seeing if I could take him out for a bite to eat, but when I arrived, he was in his favorite recliner, watching an old western. After the usual greetings, he ordered me to, "Sit down and watch the western." Was I hungry? Did I like enchiladas? (I must add, these are his famously delicious enchiladas) Could he make me some?

"Don't you want to finish the movie?" I asked.

"Oh," he said in his West Texas accent, "I've seen this a bunch of times... I know the ending."

How could I refuse such an offer... Within a few minutes, we were eating enchiladas and watching an Audie Murphy western. "He's my hero," my friend said. When the movie was over, and half the settlers had been killed by the Indians and half the Indians had been killed by the settlers, he declared to me that this was his favorite love story.


There is no way to put a value on visiting World War II veterans in their homes, where they are most peaceful, surrounded by memories of a full life, and so desiring to share those memories with someone who really cares. 


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"I've never forgotten them - I never will." / Memorial Day 2018

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Each year people write extensively about the meaning behind Memorial Day. I've written a few posts in the past similarly... but this year I just want to share some brief moments from my first Memorial Day in DC. 

To be honest, I didn't plan on spending this solemn holiday in D.C., for no reason other than I had different plans. But before the day was half over, I wouldn't have traded a precious minute of it to be somewhere else.

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For instance, I listened to a 14 year old Korean-American publicly thank the men who liberated his grandparents back in 1951, and pledge over $800 of his personal savings to the memorial that was in tribute of these liberators. He dedicated a flag to his hero, a WWII/Korean War Paratrooper who had lost both an arm and a leg fighting for that boy's country. Such articulate honor from a young man was completely inspiring. By the end of his speech (entitled "This I Believe"), I'm sure I wasn't the only one trying to keep back the tears.


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At the Vietnam Wall, letters were left for passersby to read. Letters expressing all emotions. Heartbreak, anger, bitterness, forgiveness, love, and gratitude. One read, 

Hello,

I graduated from high school in 1970. My brother (Daniel) was drafted in 1967. When I dated some of the men who had just received their draft cards, they told me they would "probably" die in the war... I tried to comfort them and told them I was very proud of them. 

I know some were killed, because they didn't return. A few of them came to my house and asked me what they should do - because they were weighing whether or not to go. I could only tell them to do as their knowledge told them what they felt was the right thing to do. 

I've never visited The Wall in Washington, D.C., but I am traveling to that area this September, and I won't be afraid if I see some names I recognize. These men died for me and also for all the people in America. They did not die in vain.

I've never forgotten them - I never will.

Ms. Frank (Daniel's sister)


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Without getting too heady and philosophical, I truly believe there are seasons and holidays which act as a natural conduit for humans to interact with each other. Maybe we shouldn't need it, but they give us an excuse to talk to strangers and step out of our comfort zone without the usual "awkwardness."

On this day, something about the meaningful solemnity of it gave off a bit of this warmth and affability. Even an openness to share difficult stories with complete strangers. 

Throughout the afternoon, I found myself listening to heart-wrenching stories from veterans I'd only met minutes before, as they told me about war, of friends they'd lost, pointing to the names on the wall, or showing me their photographs.

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Notes from May 29:

I met 173rd Airborne veteran, Samuel, at the Vietnam Wall yesterday. He had been in D.C. with his reunion the last week and decided to stay an extra day to visit the wall for the very first time.

As all Texans eventually meet up (he was from Austin and I from San Antonio), we got to talking. I asked him about the name his son and he had just pointed out, Charles Watters.

He spoke softly and thoughtfully as he told me that in the few weeks before Thanksgiving, 1967, his unit had had a fierce fight with the VC. The casualties on both sides were enormous, and over 143 paratroopers were killed. He made it out himself, but he never forgot those couple of weeks.

In years afterwards, every Thanksgiving as his family gathered together, before the meal started, he would remind his sons, "We must always be grateful to the 143 boys who didn't make it back."

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A little while later, Samuel came up and showed me a picture. "This was my friend," he said, "I'm looking for his name down on that end. Everybody thought we looked just alike. He was a great guy. But he wasn't supposed to be killed. It wasn't supposed to happen." And he explained to me that one night in Vietnam, they'd heard noises coming from an area a little ways away. It was someone else's job to check it out, but his friend was too curious and had jumped up to see what it was. He was instantly hit.

"I tried to visit the Traveling Wall when it came to our area a couple of times..." he said. "But I just couldn't do it..."

Samuel is just one of many veterans I talked to at the Wall yesterday. Many of them with stories very similar to his.

Being with a veteran when he makes his first visit to the wall is very moving. It's a vulnerable time for them because all their barriers are suddenly taken away, and all they are left with are the raw feelings and emotions of the moment, of seeing so many thousands of names in stone, and among them their friend. But at the same time, it's beautiful to watch. To see the names remembered and the Veterans of this tragic war finding peace and healing.


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On a somewhat lighter note, it was a thrill and an honor to meet Mr. Kyung Kim, one of the brave ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines who served with our guys in Korea. And you know what, whether you're an ROK Marine or a United States Marine, a Marine is a Marine!

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Throughout the day, I kept running into these lovely fellows representing the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Angelo Wider (left) enlisted in the Army in 1964 and served with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He was nearly fatally wounded in 1966, but the bullet missed his vital organs, saving his life. He left the service in 1967.

Felix Garcia (right) of Texas is a three-time Purple Heart recipient. He served with the 1st Marine Division, and was wounded at Al Karmah and Fallujah. He's the Junior Vice Commander at the Military Order of the Purple Heart Association.


Click on the below photos for a full description

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Memorial Day is always meaningful for me, even as I remember my great-great Uncle Israel Goldberg who died overseas in 1942. But this Memorial Day was especially so. The openness strangers and veterans felt sharing their personal stories with me left me greatly touched.

I also saw again and again that gratitude is a universal language. From a 14 year-old boy speaking to his hero, to the wrinkled hand of a visiting foreigner thanking one of our veterans. Gratitude is beautiful.

And finally, in the minds of many of the veterans who participated in the various wars and conflicts America has taken part in the last 70+ years, every day is Memorial Day. If that is the case, it's only appropriate to take at least one day out of 365 to remember the boys who are "forever young."


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Greater Peoria Honor Flight / May 8, 2018

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The month of May was truly Honor Flight month for Operation Meatball. Immediately following the Chino Air Show (which I talked about last post), OM began a whirl-wind trip to Peoria, Illinois.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had received a text from my dear friend (and Operation Meatball board member) Phyllis Piraino of Greater Peoria Honor Flight that they had a spot for me on their May 8th Flight. I was beyond ecstatic. As you all know, I LOVE working with Honor Flight, and there are few hubs I'd rather fly with than Greater Peoria. They were our very first Honor Flight nearly four years ago, and because of that, we share a special bond with them. 

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Notes from May 7:

 

Nearly 4 years ago we met our first Honor Flight at the WWII Memorial: Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). Today I got to see our very first Honor Flight vet, Bob L-, and tomorrow I fly out with GPHF for their V-E Day Honor Flight. Excited doesn't even begin to describe it. But it's a start. We have a bright and early start in the AM, so DC peeps: stay tuned for some pretty happy vets about to head your way!

 
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The night before a trip, GPHF hosts a Pre-Flight Dinner. This is a wonderful opportunity for the vets to get together, meet, break the ice, give any final information for the trip the next day, and enjoy a hearty meal!

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The details that go into this dinner are numerous. In fact, this is one of the things we first noticed about GPHF which sets it apart: their attention to detail and community effort. It isn't a millionaire who sends the vets to D.C., it is the hard work of the local community. During the last school year alone, students from grade schools in Peoria raised $106,480 to send their heroes, the veterans of the Greater Peoria area, to DC!! This is just incredible.

From the adorable goody bags decorated by local children, to the incredible pre-flight dinner, the veterans can't help but feel completely loved and honored for their service.


Flight Day!

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Mornings are early with Honor Flight, but the energy is always high enough to make up for it. First comes check-in, then photos, followed by the easiest trip through security that you'll ever experience. 

Popping around, asking the vets if they were ready for the day, I heard from one of our Korean War vets that he had already had the most wonderful time, and he didn't know how it could get better. "Wait a minute! You can't say that," I told him. "It's 4:30 am in the morning, and we haven't even left Peoria yet." But he insisted. His cup was almost filled up with the happiness he had experienced in the last 24 hours. "Just you wait..." was all I could tell him, and I had to leave him contentedly thinking it couldn't get better. 

Coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army, the National Anthem played by two darling little girls on the violin, and we are off!! 


Arrival in DC!

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Whenever an Honor Flight lands in D.C., the entire terminal is notified, and everything is put on hold to greet these heroes with handshakes, clapping, even a little music. Of course, the vets are not expecting this, and I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of moist eyes among the group.


National World War Two Memorial

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First Stop: The National World War Two Memorial for the May 8, V-E Day Program. This was extra special for our group as we had 7 World War Two veterans on this flight who were invited to participate in the ceremony. 

Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight

Needless to say, the memorials never get old ~ each visit is a new experience, a new memory. But visiting the WWII Memorial with WWII vets, and on such a significant anniversary as May 8, the end of World War Two... it's really hard to beat that.

Some of the WWII vets presented the wreaths for the VE Day ceremony.

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Sunny and warm, but a perfect day. And these two kept us smiling the entire day.

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I always love to see the veterans getting together and chatting... no longer strangers.

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Two of our WWII,s. 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!


The Vietnam Wall

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Each memorial holds a special significance to me... the Vietnam Wall is no exception. For the sake of time, I'll just share one story with you from this emotional memorial...

Notes from May 12 / A highlight from Greater Peoria Honor Flight's trip on Tuesday was visiting the Vietnam wall with our Nam vets. I was able to help Archie find a few of his friends' names (many of them childhood friends)... but the most touching moment came when he told me the story of an officer of his who's name is on the wall:

It was Friday the 13th. Archie and 12 other men were on a patrol in Vietnam. Communications were poor and before he knew it they were being fired on - by their own men. They had unknowingly run into a brother unit who took them for VC. In a matter of moments, every man in his 13-man patrol was wounded, and the officer (fresh out of OTS) was killed. It is one of the tragic accidents of war, and sadly there are too many stories similar to Archie's.

Each visit to the wall is uniquely special... but this is one I will remember for a long time. 


Air Force Memorial

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I ended up spending the entire time at the Air Force Memorial listening as this kind and gentle man, Mr. Avery, explained to me how meaningful this whole experience had been for him. At the end of the day, as we disembarked from the plane back in Peoria, his eyes were full of tears. No words needed to translate that.


Welcome Home

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Moving forward because it's impossible to capture every moment in one blogpost (those of you who suffered through our post[s] several years ago when the girls and I were guardians for two 95 year-old Air Force vets know what I'm talking about)... The Welcome-Home.

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I've never teared up at a Welcome-Home before. But I certainly did here (I'll just blame it on Mr. Avery for getting me started). I walked down the line taking photos of the countless people holding signs, cheering the veterans, hugging and kissing, thanking the veterans, the bagpipes, the families greeting their loved ones... I'm still getting chokey thinking about it.

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Honestly, this was the best Welcome-Home I've ever been to. I'm not good at estimated numbers, but I can say that the entire airport terminal was packed (and I mean PACKED) with people. 

The entire day was a magical one for our vets, and I'm afraid I've only been able to give you a few inadequate highlights. The work that goes into each flight is just enormous, and I can't say enough about the whole GPHF crew, who are really the heart and soul of this Honor Flight hub! And the biggest hug and thanks to Phyllis for including me! 

Finally, the number one word that comes to mind with Honor Flight is Healing. Whether it is tough memories that won't fade, or possibly hard feelings over long overdue recognition, these dear men, who served our country in good times and in bad, come home with a new feeling of respect, healing, and value. 


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Chino Planes of Fame Airshow / May 5-6, 2018

Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

Liberty with WWII Veteran, George Ciampa at the Planes of Fame Air Show

The first weekend in May, I was invited out by the Veteran's History Project to the Planes of Fame Airshow in Chino, California. This event has been on my bucket list for several years now, and it did not disappoint!! My friend, Don Baer, head of the Veteran's History Project, had tirelessly worked for months to bring together a stellar group of guest veterans which included such names as:

Dick Cole: the last surviving Doolittle Raider
Lauren Bruner: USS Arizona Survivor
Ed Lopez: WW2 & Korean War P-47 Pilot
Doc Pepping: Combat Medic with the 101st Airborne Division
Sarge Lenticum: Vietnam veteran who served 3 tours with the 101st Airborne
Muriel Engelman: Army Nurse - Battle of the Bulge
Bob Friend: Tuskegee Airman
Vince Speranza: 101st Airborne - Battle of the Bulge, and many, many more.

D-Day veterans, Pearl Harbor veterans, Air Corps, Flying Tigers... The years, the history, the experience, all gathered together, under one tent. It was spectacular. 

Each day the tent would fill with spectators of all ages, excited to meet Living History. Little children who just wanted to shake the hand of a veteran, retired servicemen and women who wanted to talk aviation with the WWII ace, the airborne reenactor who wanted to meet the original Paratrooper, and then the random sightseer who was there for the planes and hotdog stands, knowing little about history or WWII, but left filled with respect, admiration, and a new understanding of the sacrifices made for our country. 

Vince Speranza (101st Airborne WWII) talks with P-47 Pilot, Ed Lopez

I didn't see much of the air show (typical for me) as I ended up spending most the time chatting away with the veterans. How could I not?? It was such a fabulous opportunity to visit with men from all areas of the war.

I shared a few words, and a few laughs with USS Arizona survivor, Lauren Bruner, the first afternoon. Mr. Bruner had a dramatic escape from this tragic ship, suffering 73% burns.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, despite his terrible injuries, his knowledge and abilities were needed, and he was called up by the Navy. Four years later, his war ended in Tokyo Bay with the surrender of the Japanese.  

Wilbur Richardson: B-17 Ball Turret Gunner - 30 missions.

Sometimes I wonder if Doc Pepping is the reason the sun comes up every morning. His cheerful personality and hilarious sense of humor makes him a delight to be around. During the war, Doc parachuted into Normandy on D-Day serving as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne. 

It's always great to see our friends from the Airborne Demonstration Team!

WWII Veteran, Vince Speranza, keeping the attention of these young fellas. 

WWII Veteran Larry Stevens surprised us with a visit to the Veteran's tent. After chatting a few minutes with Mr. Stevens, I learned that he was in the same bomb group as the uncle of a close family friend. From then on we were buddies. Mr. Stevens is another man who helps the sun to rise in the morning with his grateful, cheerful, optimistic personality. After meeting him, it was impossible to stop smiling.

Veterans Ed McMullen (Flying Tigers) and Col. Dick Cole waiting to be presented with a special award from the Chinese government. 

Mr. and Mrs. McMullen. Mr. McMullen was a B24 nose-gunner who flew "the hump" in the China-Burma-India theater with the 308th Heavy Bomb Group, "Flying Tigers." Meanwhile Mrs. McMullen worked as a Riveter at a Lockheed defense plant. She had one brother serving in the Pacific and the other at the Battle of the Bulge. Thankfully, both made it home. Mr. and Mrs. McMullen have been married for over 70 years and are just as precious as can be.

Jack Gutman, a Navy Corpsman not only at the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, but also the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific. 

WWII and Korean War veteran, Ed Lopez sits behind his impressive medal display. 

Last photo, but definitely not the least!! My new friend, Bob Friend. On day 1 of the air show, Mr. Friend and his daughter were the first to arrive. So I got to spend a good half hour chatting away before the rest of the group arrived, followed by the crowds. During the war, Mr. Friend served with the elite Tuskegee Airmen. But though we talked a good deal about his service in the war, hearing about his fascinating and hilarious family was really the icing on the cake. Couldn't have been a better start to the air show weekend.

It was a smashing weekend at Chino. Many, many thanks to Don Baer and the team of the Planes of Fame - Veteran's History Project who worked tirelessly all weekend (and long before) making it an awesome experience for the veterans and spectators. 


My Two English Gramps

I think it is no coincidence that the two men who most profoundly impacted my interest and passion in preserving the history of WW2 were born on the same day. Les Womack and Peter Scott, my two English Grandpas. Today would have been their 95th and 92nd birthdays.

I was 14 when I met them. It was my first time in Normandy, France.

Gramps Womack was staying at our hotel on Juno Beach. He had the loveliest lilting Yorkshire accent and was the ultimate gentleman, proud of his service in the British Army during WW2.

Grandpa Scott was touring the D-Day beaches with his Navy chums. He was a "refined cockney," whose years in the Royal Navy had left him with a swagger and a brilliant sense of humor.

Shortly after, between emails, letters, and phones calls, they became my adopted English Grandpas.

Both Gramps Womack and Grandpa Scott were simply the most wonderful to me, and I was very close with them. I have rarely written about them here, partly because the loss of both is still fresh, and partly because sometimes the most precious aspects of our lives are also the most private. However, I will say emphatically that I don't know what my life would have been without them. Certainly, there would be no Operation Meatball.

To have one adopted Gramps is a special thing. But to have unique and separate relationships with two Gramps across the ocean is something I would never have dreamed of being blessed with.

I think of them every day, but especially today. . . on their birthdays.

Always Kiss Goodnight: A Story for Valentine's Day

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With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought I'd share a sweet story with you.

The article below was written by the American-Statesman a few years ago about a simply darling couple, the Kanters. When I first read this article, I knew I must make their acquaintance, so I invited them to our first WWII Veterans Dinner in 2014. Very happily for us, they accepted the invitation, and the girls and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. Mr. Kanter was completely charming (and very handsome!) and Mrs. Kanter was fabulously spunky. Walking up to an Army veteran at our dinner she declared, "If you see a good looking man in a black sports coat, watch out. He is Navy all the way." When the veteran made a comment about the Army's superiority, she deftly defended her husband and the Navy. Sadly, Mrs. Kanter passed away not too long after the dinner. To know her was an absolute delight. 

With that brief background, here is the article:

Mr. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.


Always Kiss Goodnight

Helen Anders

American-Statesman Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 

It was Halloween night 1944, and a new student at the University of Texas, Irene Wolfson, had a date to a Longhorns football game. Told a blue norther was coming in, but not knowing quite what that was because she’d just arrived from Florida, Irene dressed smartly in a one-button suit with a yellow angora sweater.

“I go out to get in the car,” Irene recalls, “and driving is this sailor with coal-black hair and a fantastic smile.” That, however, was not Irene’s date, although her date was also in the car. The sailor, Marvin Kanter, on shore leave from the Navy, had a date of his own. Still, during the evening when it became clear that Irene had under-dressed for the norther, he lent her his pea coat. The next day, Marvin left to catch a ship out of San Francisco.

“All the way to California, I was picking yellow angora off my pea coat,” he says. His memory of Irene stuck with him just like the angora, and when he was back in Austin — two years later, after World War II had ended — he tracked her down for a date. Then he went home to Missouri and she to Florida, but they corresponded. Irene’s mother saw his picture in her daughter’s room and instantly disapproved.

“He has a weak chin,” she tsked. Undeterred, Irene proposed to Marvin when they got together one weekend in 1947.

“What are your future plans?” Marvin asked Irene, who quickly answered: “I plan to marry you and settle down.” In 1949, they did just that, opting to move to Austin, where Irene quickly landed a job with a fabric store and Marvin worked for a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“I don’t think anyone expected the marriage to last,” Irene muses. But here they are, 64 years later. Irene wound up teaching school, then becoming an administrator, serving as assistant principal of Anderson High School for 20 years. Marvin took a job with the Texas Railroad Commission and spent 34 years of weekends officiating at football games, many of them attended by Irene and their daughter, Shelly.

“Remember that time we put hotdog wrappers on our feet to keep warm?” Shelly remembers, and both her parents laugh.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Mr. and Mrs. Kanter at our 2014 Veterans Dinner.

Now retired, Marvin and Irene take a swim in their pool at exactly 4 p.m. every day (unless it’s too cold) and follow that up with a 5 p.m. cocktail hour. They may be out of the business world, but they’re far from idle. They work from time to time as extras in movies shooting in Austin — in fact, they enjoyed a decent amount of screen time behind Sandra Bullock in a restaurant scene in “Miss Congeniality” — and they travel relentlessly, heading out for a tour of interior Alaska just four weeks after Irene had hip surgery. Talking about all this, they grin at each other like newlyweds.

“We have a lot of fun together,” Irene says.

“We laugh a lot, and we try to stay young,” Marvin says. “And whether the day has gone smooth or rough, at the end of the day, we kiss each other.”

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve had a fuss,” Irene says, “but we do.”

http://www.statesman.com/lifestyles/always-kiss-good-night/3rPiyfI7ktv4v9tooYr2RN/

Henry Vaden and the Language of the Eyes

Three years ago this January, the girls and I were given a special gift. The gift of friendship with one of the kindest and gentlest of souls I've had the pleasure of knowing, Henry Vaden. It was a short-lived friendship, just shy of 3 months, but it remains in my memory as one of the most special and unique friendships. 


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It all started in December of 2014, when we received note from a lady (who has since become a very dear friend) writing us to see if we would visit her father, a WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran who lived in a nursing home just a few miles from us. She lived many, many states away and was unable to make it down to Texas. Of course we were delighted to make a visit on her behalf, though we little knew at the time what an impact her father, Mr. Vaden, would have on our lives. 

I've never known the phrase, "The eyes are the window to the soul," to be more true than with Mr. Vaden. Until I met him, I'd never really noticed people's eyes. However since then, I've learned that one can attempt to lie through the mouth, but it's hard to deceive with the eyes. In an instant, before you can even utter words, your eyes have already spoken, giving away what happiness or sadness you may be feeling in your heart at the time. For Mr. Vaden, his smiling eyes spoke a language of their own, even while he did not speak. 

During our visits with Mr. Vaden, the girls and I quickly learned to communicate with him through his eyes. They showed optimism and contentedness. If he felt poorly, they never complained. The constant twinkle in his eyes kept us on our toes. How was he feeling that day? Did he like the song Faith sang? Lunch was better than yesterday? That's good news. 

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One afternoon we brought him an old LIFE Magazine from early 1945.

During WWII, Mr. Vaden had served in the 106th Infantry, barely escaping capture by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Years had made the details of his war a little foggy and hard to remember, so I thought bringing this LIFE might bring back some forgotten memories. Flipping through the magazine, the girls and I gave him a chatty commentary on the photos and articles. We watched his eyes scan the pages with much interest, looking for what was familiar to him, laughing simultaneously at the way we rambled on.

Did he remember this General? 

His eyes said, "Not really."

Do you remember when the Germans advanced here? 

"Yes." His eyes said.

Oh, here are some photos from the Battle of the Bulge. Was it terribly cold there?

"Brr. Too cold," He conveyed. "Turn the page." 

My favorite part came when we arrived at a full-page advertising a new General Electric Radio with the fabulous Carmen Miranda, well known for her wacky hats, platform shoes, and tongue-twisting latin music. We didn't even have a chance to ask, "Do you remember Carmen Miranda?" before his face said it all.

"Of course I remember her!" His eyes seemed to say. "How can you forget her fruit-salad hats!?" 

His expressions were so hilarious, we all burst out laughing. Our follow up question was, did Mr. Vaden's wife ever wear one of the funny little hats like Carmen Miranda? Well... maybe not as crazy. 

"Oh did she ever!" He almost rolled his eyes. But it was followed by a genuine smile saying, "They might have been funny, but I loved them."

And that is how our weekly visits went. Some days Mr. Vaden felt well enough to say a few words. There was one morning I'll never forget. As we walked into his hospital room, he greeted us with a bright smile and a verbal, "Good morning girls!" We were so surprised that we just stood there for a moment astonished. "You look so much better!" We finally laughed.

"I feel better!" He answered back with real words.

He spoke with a twinkle in his eye as if to say, "Ha. I thought I would surprise you. You never know what to expect from me!"

And he laughed. The most wonderful laugh. We had heard from his daughter that he had the most wonderful sense of humor. Of course he did. 

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You really can't underestimate this power of speechless conversation until you have tried it with someone. It is compelling. On days when he didn't feel so keen, and Faith would just sing him a song or two, we would watch his eyes as he sang along. Hymns, songs from the 40s, the 50s, 60s; he knew almost all of them. I remember clearly being often moved by the expressions on his face as he listened. That's another thing that should never be underestimated. The power of music to bring back memories long forgotten. Once when Faith sang, "White Cliffs of Dover," such a multitude of thoughts crossed his face, sweet memories mixed with some bitter ones, maybe from the war? I watched in awe wondering what a beautiful life this man must have lived and just what a blessing it was to know him.

As Mr. Vaden began to decline, it was harder and harder to say goodbye after each visit. We never knew when it would be the last time, and we had fallen in love with this dear man. My last visit with him was in early March, 2015. I was supposed to head out of town on a business trip in a day or two. He was sleeping peacefully, so I whispered goodbye to him and left. He passed away while I was gone.


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It's been almost exactly 3 years since I first walked into his nursing home. But I can honestly say those weekly visits with him changed my life. In his quiet way, with his beautiful smile and twinkling eyes, he taught me so much. He taught me about Contentedness. I doubt he would have complained about anything, even given the opportunity. He was always Grateful. If it was a sunny day, he expressed gratitude. It was a rainy day, he expressed gratitude. Even when he felt most ill, there was still a twinkle of Humor about him.

He was Patriotic. The war was a long way back in his mind. Hard to remember things. But he was so proud of the service he gave his country in WWII. I often spoke with him about how the people of France and Belgium still remember his service. His face would beam with noble pride over it.

And how important was Family to him? You only had to mention a name and his face would fill with the deep love he had for his family. No matter the day, he always made an effort to pass a message along to his beloved daughters. 

He also opened my eyes to a different type of friendship. Not your regular friendship, but a very, very special one. A type of friendship that doesn't require many words because the kindness of heart is expressed through the eyes and smile. And what a smile! 

On that first visit, the girls and I hoped to bring a little joy to Mr. Vaden. But instead, he was the one who always brought joy to us!  I wouldn't trade anything for those weekly visits or his beautiful smile. 

I will always be grateful for my brief friendship with this precious, godly soul. I know I often thank the Lord for putting it into his daughter Angela's heart to contact us. And our continued friendship with her has only added to the wonderful blessing of knowing the man with the wonderful smile, Mr. Vaden.